Do cities go too far with tickets and fines? San Francisco hires a director
of financial justice to find out.
On a recent morning, Anne Stuhldreher, her long hair stuffed under a yellow helmet, biked from her home in San Francisco’s Mission District to City Hall and settled into the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector. In the cubicles around her, city workers processed tax payments and chased late fees for everything from fire alarm pranks to General Hospital bills. Stuhldreher was there, however, to question the fairness of those fees and more like them — the $71 parking ticket, the $116 Muni fare-evasion fine, the $150 homeless camping citation. She’s the country’s first-ever director of financial justice for a city. Her job is to figure out which government fines and fees unfairly punish the poor and middle class.
“I started thinking about this many years ago when I got pulled over near my house,” Stuhldreher said. “I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Many people in my neighborhood had gotten this ticket, and I knew it was several hundred dollars.” At the time, she’d been working with the city on financial programs for low-income residents and had learned that, according to one estimate, 63 percent of Americans wouldn’t have access to $500 cash in a bind. “What happens when people can’t pay?” she wondered.
The ticket ended up being dismissed, and Stuhldreher didn’t think about the topic much further. Then, in 2015, Stuhldreher read about the withering U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Missouri’s police department, following the killing of Michael Brown. Investigators found that the city’s finance director had encouraged police to make up for a tax shortfall by aggressively doling out traffic tickets and petty fees. Many officers disproportionately targeted black residents, who were treated “less as constituents to be protected,” according to the report, “than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” “I’m a big believer in the power of government to do good things,” Stuhldreher told me, “so when I started seeing what was happening in Ferguson, I’m like, this is predatory. This is predatory government.”
Stuhldreher began studying the countless fees meted out by local, county, and state governments. The bail system, for instance, puts a price on freedom that the wealthy can pay but the poor can’t. Many counties charge parents for the days their kid spends in juvenile hall, a double punishment that further stresses low-income families already in distress; others charge probationers for their electronic ankle bracelet, squeezing those who, because of their criminal record, usually have trouble getting jobs. If a homeless person in San Francisco is ticketed for urinating in the street or sleeping outside and fails to appear in court, a judge issues a warrant for his arrest, which disqualifies him from applying for housing programs in the future. And consider that ticket for rolling through a stop sign: If a traffic ticket goes unpaid in San Francisco for 20 days, it can be slapped with a $300 late fee and eventually sent to a collections agency, which can sink a person’s credit. Four million Californians — 17 percent of the adult population — have had their driver’s licenses suspended for unpaid traffic fines and fees, debts they’ll struggle with if they can’t get to work.
The Ferguson report came out while Stuhldreher was working at the California Endowment foundation, pushing policies to improve conditions for the state’s low-income residents. “I started bugging a lot of people I knew at City Hall, including the treasurer, like, ‘Look, you’ve been starting these initiatives to help people build up their financial reserves, and these other things are depleting them …. It doesn’t work for anyone.’” In early 2016, the city’s treasurer, José Cisneros, invited Stuhldreher to tackle these problems — as a city staffer.
Stuhldreher and Cisneros had worked together in the past, using the treasurer’s office in inventive ways. In 2003, Stuhldreher wrote a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed proposing a working-family income tax credit. A small local incentive, between $100 and $250, would be available only to people who applied for the much bigger federal tax credit, thus helping to publicize the federal funds, which often went unclaimed. Gavin Newsom read the op-ed and asked Stuhldreher to consult on a number of issues when he became mayor in 2004. He and Cisneros pushed the proposal through one month later. Since then, 33,000 San Francisco families have received nearly $10 million from these credits, and other local governments, including New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland — and, in 2015, the state of California — have passed similar measures. Stuhldreher then convinced banks to offer free starter checking accounts to those who had previously been shunned by traditional banks because they had bad credit, lacked proper identification, or couldn’t meet a minimum balance requirement. Called Bank On San Francisco, the program has been copied in dozens of cities.
“It’s very hard to say no to Anne Stuhldreher,” said Daniel Zingale, a former senior adviser to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I see Anne as a new-century happy warrior,” he said — determined, but always exuding warmth. Zingale had recruited Stuhldreher to be Schwarzenegger’s policy adviser in 2007 and later worked with her at the California Endowment. He recalls Schwarzenegger’s reaction each time she walked into the governor’s office during her year-long appointment. Zingale offered up his best impersonation: “Oh nooooo, it’s Anne Stuhl-Dre-Her!’” (It was one of the only things Schwarzenegger could say with the right accent, Zingale added.) The governor’s mock agony usually meant that Stuhldreher was about to get what she wanted: measures that put more money in the pockets of those who most needed it.
Stuhldreher accepted Cisneros’s offer and became the head of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project. By April, her task force must recommend policy changes to city legislators. In early December, after talking with Stuhldreher and Cisneros, the mayor’s office told city agencies that they shouldn’t increase fines and fees for the next two fiscal years, despite 3 percent budget cuts. Stuhldreher is figuring out what to suggest next. She has consulted with Karin Martin at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has studied “day fines,” which, in some European countries, base fees on a person’s daily income. Stuhldreher would like to create a similar system locally, with fees assessed on a sliding scale. After learning that many San Franciscans settle their parking tickets with community service, Stuhldreher is looking to see which other departments might be open to accepting nonmonetary forms of payment.
“How can we right-size these things?” Stuhldreher wonders. “At that stop sign in my neighborhood, if someone driving a Tesla rolls through it and someone who works at the daycare center [rolls through] … should their ticket be the same?”